Art for the sake of art does not exist in the White House.
With each change of presidency, the president meticulously chooses new artwork to display. The paintings and statues a president chooses in the White House are more than decorations on the wall; they are aesthetic political statements that reflect the president’s ideology.
Artwork by Glenn Ligon, an artist whose work focuses on black identity in America, was chosen by former President Barack Obama to hang in the White House. Obama’s decision to display Ligon’s work in the White House is demonstrative of a larger trend of presidents choosing artwork to reflect their political beliefs. Therefore, the artwork that presidents display can be used to reflect their motives.
Ligon’s painting, Black Like Me #2, was on view in the Obama family’s sitting room during the Obama presidency. It is a vertical painting that depicts a line from the 1961 book “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, highlighting the disenfranchisement of black people. This painting was not the only work that President Obama kept in the White House that reflected black identity. In 2011, Obama displayed Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, a piece depicting young Ruby Bridges flanked by her security detail walking past racial slurs as she walked to her all-white school. By displaying works that reflect black identity, Obama reflected his break from American exceptionalism and recognized social issues as a major platform of his presidency.
Shortly after Trump’s move into the White House, he made his own changes. The works on loan during the Obama administration were returned, and pieces already owned by the White House were rotated around the Oval Office. On the first day of Trump’s presidency, the Martin Luther King Jr. bust was demoted to the other side of the room, a clear statement that Trump would be distancing himself from Obama’s legacy. Instead, the bust of Winston Churchill previously removed by Obama was given its seat of honor adjacent to the president’s desk. By reinstating the bust of Churchill — a military-focused prime minister — Trump is demonstrating his celebration of military leaders.
A couple of months into his term, Trump replaced Norman Rockwell’s painting Working on the Statue of Liberty, a work that depicts immigrants building the Statue of Liberty, with a portrait of President Andrew Jackson. Trump is one of the first in a long line of presidents to publicly revere and model his presidency on Jackson’s term. In November 2017, Trump honored two Navajo Code Talkers for their work in World War Two in front of the Jackson portrait. In conducting the ceremony before the portrait of a president who provoked the Trail of Tears, Trump demonstrated his insensitivity to Native American grievances with the American government.
The way that presidents decide what artwork goes on the walls of the Oval Office and in the rest of the White House reflects the political priorities in their presidency. Trump recently hung a print of Andy Thomas’ work The Republican Club; the painting depicts Trump sitting with Abraham Lincoln, suggesting that the Republican party today is the same as Lincoln’s Republican party; in reality the parties switched platforms in the early 20th century. By choosing these misleading works, Trump shows that his presidency is about celebrating “older values” and American exceptionalism.
It is vital to pay attention to the artworks that presidents request from museums or remove from the White House because these subtle acts give us a glimpse into the president’s intentions. Last week, Georgetown University’s contemporary art gallery opened an exhibition featuring the works of Glenn Ligon. In looking at the works of Ligon, it is easy to recognize President Obama’s political message in featuring these works of art.
Paintings are more than just art on the walls but powerful artifacts of history. We need to recognize that art is inherently political by first recognizing the way art can shape a presidency.
Katie O‘Hara is a first-year graduate in art and museum studies. Painting Politics appears online every other Wednesday.